Saturday September 20th, 2014

With all the talk about the Cy Young winners in the rotation, all the talk about the struggles of Joe Nathan and the Dramamine-inducing bullpen, we sometimes forget this about the Detroit Tigers: they still have the most explosive offense in baseball. On Friday night, the Tigers hitters flexed their muscles with a 10-1 shellacking of the Royals in the first game of a colossal series in Kansas City.

The Detroit starting pitching staff may not be as good as we thought it’d be after the Tigers acquired David Price at the trade deadline -- the rotation, after all, ranks just 10th in the AL with a 3.93 ERA. And the bullpen, 13th in the league at 4.28, is still a mess, with Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus unfathomably sticking with Nathan as his closer. But on Friday the Tigers reminded us why, despite their obvious flaws, we should take them seriously as World Series contenders: they can rake. Detroit leads the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and is second to the Angels in runs scored. It showed when the Tigers jumped on the Royals early.

Kansas City starter Jason Vargas was uncharacteristically shaky in the first inning, allowing three runs after allowing just four first-inning runs in his previous 28 starts. Vargas left a fastball over the plate against Miguel Cabrera, who hit a hard line drive to left. Alex Gordon, not realizing how far the ball was hit, watched as the ball to sailed over his extended right hand. The misplay from Gordon, one of the best fielders in the league, allowed the first of many Tigers’ scores.

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Cabrera may have gotten a break on that play, but he’s been swinging a hot bat lately, and this bodes well for Detroit’s postseason chances.Last year Cabrera limped to the finish line, hitting .278 with just one home run in September, and he went on to have a quiet postseason. This September, he’s been one of the hottest hitters on the planet. His .469 average this month leads the league, and he has six home runs 19 days in.

Meanwhile, against the Royals, Ian Kinsler hit his 15th home run of the year; J.D. Martinez continued his big breakout season with a three-hit night; and Victor Martinez, the darkhorse MVP candidate, drove in a run and had two hits to raise his average to .335.

On the mound, Justin Verlander wasn’t overpowering, but he was effective, keeping the ball down in the zone as his fastball topped out at 93-94 mph. He had by far his best start of the month, allowing one run over 7 1/3 innings. There’s been talk about how the Tigers should move the Cy Young winner into their beleaguered bullpen, but Verlander made his case to stay in the rotation with an impressive outing in one of his team’s biggest games of the year.

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A fine start from Verlander, a big night from the offense: the Tigers looked like the Tigers we all expected to run away with the division at the beginning of the season. And now, with two more wins in Kansas City, they can finally put the Royals away. With wins on Saturday and Sunday, they’d be up 3.5 games entering the final week of the season. Remember, though, that on Monday the Royals are scheduled to complete a game against the Indians with Cleveland up 4-2 in the 10th inning. That’s a game that Kansas City will probably lose, so the Tigers would be up four games with just six left to play. In other words, Detroit would have a fifth straight division title more or less wrapped up.

In Kansas City, the day had dawned with such promise. The biggest series in 29 years, that’s what we kept hearing about this three-game weekend set at Kaufman Stadium. The Royals have been packing the stadium lately, and on Friday, another sellout crowd showed up, beating Thundersticks and cheering loudly during pregame introductions. And that’s what made this first game of the series so disappointing. The Royals looked terrible in all facets. They couldn’t pitch, they couldn’t hit and they couldn’t field. The question with the Royals is always where the runs are going to come from -- Kansas City ranks last in the league home runs and last in walks -- and on Friday, the feeble offense was exposed again as the lineup was shut down by a struggling starting pitcher who entered the game with a 6.00 ERA over his last six starts.

The series continues Saturday, with the best pitching matchup of the series, Max Scherzer vs. James Shields, and ends Sunday afternoon when Rick Porcello faces Jeremy Guthrie. The Royals still have a chance to win the AL Central. But time is quickly running out.

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